Emma Barnicott is an intelligent woman thwarted by circumstance and expectation, reduced to shuffling between a job in admin support at a plumbing supplies company on a Plymouth industrial estate and a passionless marriage to a husband whose idea of heaven is Fisherman’s Pie (not a euphemism) in front of the telly. Her self esteem is at rock bottom and her aspirations are in the gutter. No wonder the Help Desk is going unattended as she escapes into an online fantasy world of designer clothing and the exploits of Kim Kardashian. But then an email exchange with a charming customer offers a glimmer of hope: could there be more to life than what Emma’s settled for?
In her witty updating of Flaubert’s tale of dissatisfaction and disillusionment, Bea Roberts creates a collage of Emma’s low-fi life using a projector, screens, OP transparencies, TV and VCR; she never speaks, instead delivering the ‘script’ via the various media like a silent narrator handing us all the relevant material with which to conjure the story into consciousness. Occasionally we hear a snippet of a character’s voice via a voicemail message to get a sense of what they might sound like, but mostly they are presented via reported conversations and text messages. The love interest is a romantic, funny, all-round great guy. That they all live so fully, their personalities so distinct, their inter-relationships so credible, is down to Roberts’s skilful writing and her brilliant comic timing.
Just like Flaubert’s heroine, Emma is living vicariously through her consumption of celebrity magazines and lifestyle guides, albeit hampered by her low sense of self-worth (an erotic fantasy about Kick-era Michael Hutchence is repeatedly invaded by TV historian Neil Oliver). She shops obsessively, hoping to gild the banality of her humdrum existence by wrapping herself in cashmere she can’t afford. Roberts interrogates these desires through simple but beautifully realised imagery, including the superimposition of photos of impossibly glossy women onto streams of packing paper pulled from a box like so many glamorous rabbits; her journey to work is rendered by flicking through a series of grimly grey photographs hastily passed across the OP; when Emma dyes her hair to create the look she thinks her potential lover wants, dark, heavy liquid floods the screen, echoing her namesake’s post-death protestations.
But for this 21st-century Emma, there is hope – and it comes in the form of female friendship, something unavailable to her forerunner. Her boss, Claire, not only helps Emma save herself from the brink of financial ruin, but offers the space and the support for Emma to find her place and her voice, before it’s too late. A truly original remake.